Read an Excerpt
Off the Map
No one was there to meet Hilary when she stepped off the plane. Not that she had expected anyone, but it was another reminder of isolation in her sense of purpose. Here she was, a blond, blue-eyed, twenty-eight-year-old civilian heading to a new job in the midst of a military occupation in the Middle East.
Alone and unable to hide the fact that she was an American, she had to look like she’d done this before. She needed to get to her hotel without being ripped off–or worse. She managed to trade dollars for dinar, but she knew her ignorance would show as soon as she asked about the price of a cab ride. So she questioned one driver, then used that information to barter with a second.
Forty-five minutes later, she arrived at her hotel.
The next morning she boarded a military aircraft to fly from Kuwait to Baghdad. Strapped into a jump seat with her back against the inner wall of the airplane, she fell asleep and woke up with the muzzle of a gun leaning against her–her soldier seatmate had fallen asleep too.
But no one sleeps through the drama of a Baghdad landing. The plane dove and rolled from side to side, maneuvering wildly to avoid any unfriendly fire. It gave her the sickening sensation that her life was now completely out of her control.
The road from Baghdad International Airport to the U.S. military—secured Green Zone in the city became a notoriously dangerous passage. But that day in July she made the trek in an unarmored thin-skin vehicle–and her driver was nonchalant about whether the passengers should wear the body armor they had been issued. That was when she realized she couldn’t make any assumptions that others would look out for her security. She wasted no time in heaving on her bulletproof vest packed with heavy armor plates.
Out of the Green Zone
Baghdad’s Republican Palace, once the seat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was now the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the hub of activities in the Green Zone. An air force colonel met her there.
“Miss White, welcome to Baghdad. You’re going to spend the night here and go to Hillah in the morning.”
Apparently there was some confusion. Hillah was not a part of her plans. Going to a remote city somewhere to the south did not sound appealing.
But the colonel was insistent.
Hilary resolved to accept the change for the time being, go to Hillah, and get herself back to the Green Zone as soon as possible. She wanted to leave most of her belongings in Baghdad as collateral, but the colonel informed her everything would be going with her. The next morning they packed up her three massive black trunks–filled with six months’ worth of clothes, food, and supplies–and left for Hillah.
They rolled through arid desert for an hour and a half on a highway Saddam Hussein had built for his military. An oasis of date palm trees emerged in the midst of the desert dust as they neared Hillah. As they crossed over a bridge that spanned a tributary of the Euphrates near the ruins of Babylon, Hilary thought, This is where it all began. It was like stepping back into ancient history.
There was no exit from the highway to the road that led to their destination on the outskirts of Hillah. So they made their own, off-roading over uneven terrain before intersecting a route that ran to the U.S. compound.
The residence where Hilary and others stayed was a hotel, parts of which Saddam’s Baathist regime had used as a brothel. Almost every Iraqi Hilary met had lost family members to the violence of Saddam’s regime.
But things were changing in Hillah. Widows on the edge of destitution were learning how to make a living. Schools were being repaired, and student texts from the prior regime were being replaced. Iraqi Shia started painting their houses vibrant colors to celebrate their newfound freedom. Hillah was an oasis of good news, and Hilary had come to Iraq to share the country’s good news with the rest of the world. There was no better place for her to be. God’s sleight of hand had moved her beyond her own stubborn expectations for a purpose that would leave her more content than if she’d had it her way.
How Did I Get Here?
Hilary never dreamed she’d be going to Iraq when she neared age thirty; she thought she’d have been married with children by this time.
Lots of other unmarried twenty- and thirtysomething women expected to be married by this age too, but instead they find themselves in the midst of adventures they never imagined. Marriage is not as prompt a suitor as it was in our mothers’ generation. Back when those of us in our midthirties were born, the average age of first marriage for women was just under twenty-one. Today it is over twenty-five.
Whether by nature or nurture or a combination of forces, little girls usually grow up wanting to be wives and mothers, not going to work in a war zone. Nine out of ten high-school senior girls say that a good marriage and family life are important for their future–and that statistic hasn’t changed much in twenty-five years, in spite of the hike in marriage age.
Our culture in general, and the Christian subculture in particular, fosters in young women a desire for marriage and the presumption that marriage will be a part of life sooner rather than later. Each of us has her own script for the perfect life, spliced together from scraps of happy-ending movies and sentimental stories. But almost invariably in these fictional scenarios, marriage makes its entrance by age twenty-five, thirty at the latest.
Reality, however, regularly departs from the script. Almost six out of ten women today are not married by age twenty-five. Three out of ten are not married by age thirty.
As unmarried women, we may instead find ourselves in situations that, while not as intense as Hilary’s, leave us out of our element, occasionally confused, and every so often with a pit-in-the-stomach realization that life is not tidily within our control. Even when we are confident of our callings–knowing that we are in the right place doing the right thing for the moment–we can experience fear, insecurity, and uncertainty about all kinds of practical details in life. We struggle with our own and others’ conceptions of singleness, especially when we’re surrounded by so much cultural confusion about male-female relations, women’s roles, and personal fulfillment.
For many of us in the midst of this confusion, however, being single is no more–and no less–of a statement than, This is what God has for me now.
Finding the Way
Hilary knew that she was meant to be in Iraq. But her sense of purpose was under assault the minute she set foot alone in the Middle East.
Months before, she had gotten the idea that she’d like to help in the rebuilding of Iraq. Then she waited for weeks to hear whether a public relations post would open up for her. Waiting to go to Iraq was filled with uncertainty, just as following other promptings from God often are; one day an opening would appear, and the next day it would close. All she could do was watch for a door to begin to open, first just a crack, then partway. When it finally opened fully, she could walk through. Many doors had to open, however, before she got to Iraq.
“You never know for sure you’re going to Iraq until you’re on the plane and it’s taking off,” she tells others who think they’re headed that way. One day she was getting vaccinated at the Pentagon, and a few days later she went to pick up her bulletproof vest. Soon after, she was on an airplane to the Middle East. “And it wasn’t until I was flying across the Atlantic that I had the Aha! moment–that satisfaction when hope finally becomes reality.”
When Hilary closed the door to her room that first night in Hillah, she was totally overwhelmed. She had never run a public affairs office, let alone one in a war zone. But self-doubt and second guesses were edged out a few days later when she learned she’d be traveling to Ramadi for an Iraqi town hall meeting. There was nothing to do but get ready for work.
Her first challenge was to figure out what to wear. Being choosy that morning had nothing to do with mood; it was all about conforming to a foreign dress code, and she had to seek advice about it from American men she hardly knew. The khakis she put on left her ankles showing, so she pulled on socks. She wore a shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves and buttoned it all the way up, even though it was well over a hundred degrees. As for a head covering, she didn’t know what would be expected, so she stuffed a scarf in her bag.
Nothing was straightforward. Even issuing a press release on the progress in Ramadi was complicated. It meant scrambling to find an Arabic interpreter and an Arabic keyboard, then figuring out how to get it to the proper press outlets. The learning curve was steep.
There is a right time for everything, she determined. A time to ask questions, a time not to ask questions; a time to act like you know what you’re doing, a time to admit you have no idea. And as one of very few women among some two hundred men in the compound, it was always the time to be strong and clear about where she stood with them–but to be feminine all the same. “A girl should never go out without her gun, her flak jacket, and her lipstick,” was her rule of thumb.
The duties of many of the civilians on the compound included assisting with security, so Hilary jumped in. She decided she wanted to keep a weapon with her, and a marine heading home left her his 9 mm Beretta.
“Ma’am, do you know what you’re doing?” some soldiers would ask when they saw her carrying a weapon.
“I’m from Texas,” she’d explain, and they would smile and leave her alone.
Her military colleagues taught her how to guard her quadrant in the vehicle convoys and how to read the crowd of onlookers for trouble as they traveled. She was always on the lookout. “That’s when I learned I had to think like a terrorist might think.”
It would be a bad day, she knew, if there was an attack and she had to use the gun. But it would be a worse day if she didn’t have the gun to use.
Alone in the Unexpected
One of her American colleagues started a women’s center in Hillah. Many of the Iraqi women had lost husbands, fathers, and brothers in the Iran-Iraq war that had dominated their lives in the 1980s. Other male family members simply disappeared or were murdered by Saddam’s henchmen. In Iraq, when the breadwinner dies, his widow goes to live with his relatives. When so many men in that family are gone, the women are left to provide for themselves and their children. In south central Iraq around Hillah, women made up a majority of the population. At the women’s center, these women could learn to sew clothes or to use a computer.
Women didn’t come to the center to abandon the veil or flout their religious traditions. They came trying to make their way through a chapter of life far different from what they had expected.
For all the sadness and loss they had suffered, the Iraqi women were industrious and hopeful. They loved their new opportunities.
“There were so many good stories coming out of the women’s center and out of Hillah,” Hilary recalled.
Security in the Shadow
It wasn’t all happy endings, however. There was bad news too, like the ambush and massacre of a roommate and two colleagues, and the deaths of fellow Americans and new Iraqi friends.
There were times when the sense of insecurity was overwhelming. In one of those despairing moments, Hilary turned to a member of the security detail–a big, tough guy–and asked him if he ever got scared. Yes, he said, he did. And then he started to recite Psalm 91:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you make the Most High your dwelling–even the LORD, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Hilary spent about a year in Iraq before returning to the United States. She’s been back to Iraq three times since, and now she has a different outlook on the war zone. “I read Psalm 91 when we’re getting close to landing in Iraq, and I share it with others who may have similar fears.
“Right now, it’s harder for me to stay here than to go back. I’ve realized that I’m here to work on being content in this office life, and to learn more about walking with the Lord wherever I am.
“I know at some point I will have to stop going into the war zone. There will be a time when I will want to settle down and get married, and I won’t be able to do this anymore. And that’s fine.”
Her unexpected adventure has stretched her idea of what the future might look like, however, and she adds a caveat: “But I would like to marry someone who knows the sound of a mortar going off.”